by Irette Y. Patterson
This is about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and being Black in America. Look away if you can't handle this right now because I barely can myself. And it may be preaching to the choir but I just have to say something.
After one of the deaths last year (sad that I don't recount which one), my 20-something-year-old nephew called me in Philadelphia asking me how to stay alive.
I couldn't give him an answer.
I remember Charleston. 9 people gunned down in a church. In a Bible study on Wednesday night.
You would not find me in a Wednesday night Bible study. Honestly? I'm just not that good of a person. But my parents the Deacon and Deaconness could have been there. My aunts and my uncles were the type, the respectable type, the good type that would have been there.
And the alleged murderer who confessed to the crime was given a ride to Burger King.
And I waited. I watched my facebook feed and my twitter feed to see what would happen. And it was like no one cared.
I was broken, do you hear me? Broken. If the best of the Black Community could get gunned down and no one cared, what hope did I have?
On Being Black in America - Back when I was living in my house in Georgia, one Saturday night I noticed that there was a police car slowing driving back and forth down my street.
Now. My street is not a main road. The only people who drive down it are the folks who live there. So. I call the hot line aka the stay-at-home mom two doors down. Stay-at-home moms are like a neighborhood surveillance system. They know everything. I ask her if she knows a reason why a cop is cruising the street. She says no.
I'm looking out the front curtains and the police car stops in front of my house. The officer gets out. It's late Saturday night. I lived alone. I did not call the cops. Why the heck is Officer Friendly coming up my front steps?
I look at my fireplace and confirm that my parent's picture is on the mantle. I sort of look like them to prove residency. I also have my driver's license in my purse and could pull out the documentation for when I purchased the house.
My neighbor is still on the phone. As the officer walks up my 17 steps, I ask her if she will hold on the phone while I'm talking to the officer. The officer is extremely courteous and remains a few feet away from the door which I appreciate. He stated that someone called in a break in and he couldn't find the house number which didn't exist on my street. I told him that I didn't call it in and it was my house. I moved a little to the side so that he can see my parents' picture on the mantle. He said good-bye and left. I got back on the phone with my neighbor to assure her that I was OK.
Now. Depending on who you are, you might think that I was being ridiculous. Do you know who didn't think I was being ridiculous? My neighbor who immigrated from Trinidad whose family originally immigrated from India. She knew EXACTLY why I had her and, by extension, her former Marine husband on the line.
Let me repeat, the officer was nothing but respectful and professional. But I didn't call him. It was late at night. I lived alone. And I was scared.
I can usually tell when a non-Black author writes a Black character. I don't have to look at the cover. It's because the author does not have the basic respect for Black people to actually conduct research. Other cultures are researched to make sure that certain things are right. The science in a hard sf story has to be right. Black people? Everyone knows about Black people, right?
So. here are the top things that I know when I'm reading that a non-Black person wrote a Black character. Here are the things that are missed—
1. Family. Where are these people's people? My mom is still mad I left Atlanta a couple of years ago. Oh yeah, and family reunions.
2. Respect. I read these characters and wonder how they can get away with what they are saying to their parents. When my parents were staying with me at my house my mom actually asked me if I thought that I was grown in the middle of "heated fellowship". Yes. She was staying with me. In my house. That I was paying the mortgage on. What did I do? I walked away because I have sense, people. I am not crazy.
3. Education. Education is stressed because it was seen as a way out, as being respectable. It's a way to compete. Black women are the most highly educated group in America. That's not by accident. And code-switching is real. I wrote down one time how I talk with family and friends versus when I'm out and out. On the page it looks like two different characters.
I'm not saying that non-black authors can't write black characters. Kristine Kathryn Rusch nails it. In fact, I get a perverse pleasure in recommending non-black authors writing black characters to my black friends when it's done well. I wait until they finish the story and then spring the ethnicity of the author on them.
What I am saying is to respect the culture enough to do your research. I mean, if someone has to translate Beyonce's Lemonade album for you, maybe you need to do some more research before writing contemporary black characters.
Ezekiel James Boston Right on point.
One of my indicators is a lack of shared accomplishment. A character is the first to do something positive (go to college, open their own business, etc.) that hadn't been done by either one or both sides of their family and it's not a big deal to said family...
Irette Patterson Yep. I could never identify with black kids in children's literature growing up. It seems like it was all about growing up poor in the inner city. I grew up middle class in the suburbs. My dad was the first in his family to go to college and it was a big deal. Especially as a dark skinned black man in a time where the paper bag test was real. My parents' church has a ceremony for all the graduates each year.
Note by Melissa Yi: Irette and Sean gave me permission to share their stories from Facebook. I have edited them slightly, but their words are their own. I also highly recommend this article with concrete steps to take for a more just society. The first is to educate yourself about your city’s police conduct review process: http://www.ravishly.com/2015/04/10/what-you-can-do-right-now-about-police-brutality
Irette Y. Patterson (http://www.iretteypatterson.com/) writes uplifting, feel-good stories, like “Worth,” published in the Saturday Evening Post (http://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2014/12/19/post-fiction/contemporary-fiction-art-entertainment/worth.html).
Ezekiel James Boston favors fantasy, science fiction, and paranormal occult. http://ezekieljamesboston.com/